Spotlight on Remote Teaching: Why online dissertations can provide such profound and transformative learning

Photo credit: Suzanne Williams, Unsplash CC0

In yesterday’s post, Kelly Smith, Gill Aitken, Tim Fawns, and Derek Jones, summarized the key findings of a study they conducted on developing positive supervisory relationships online. In this second post, for the Spotlight on Remote Teaching series, Gill, Tim and Derek discuss the theoretical implications of the study and reflect on the wider benefits of online education…

Between us we must have supervised well over a hundred dissertations online and are constantly struck by the positive relationship that can develop between staff and students during the year. We are also aware that students find considerable value in their studies that is often of direct significance in their workplace. As discussed in a previous post, Kelly Smith, a recent graduate of the MSc Clinical Education, in her dissertation, chose to look at what factors were important in the development of a positive online supervisory relationship. While Gill supervised this project, the team reworked it significantly for publication, refining the model and analysing it in relation to Gutiérrez’ (2008) third space, Wenger’s (1996) notion of duality, and Granovetter’s (1973) strong and weak ties, thus providing a strong conceptualisation for the work which helps us to understand why online postgraduate study can be transformative for working professionals.

We theorised that online dissertations are a helpful way for learning to be shared between professional and academic settings, suggestive of Guitierrez’ description of a ‘third space’ where students and supervisors meet and the agency and experience of each is acknowledged, shared and expanded. The “zone of participatory alignment” as we describe it (Aitken et al. 2020), represents the productive space between the student-supervisor relationship being too distant or too close. This space is built and maintained through ongoing negotiation and discussion, and is not achieved through any straightforward method that can be simplistically replicated. Each student comes with unique experiences and motivations and unless this is recognised such a relationship is unlikely to develop.

The potentially transformative nature of online postgraduate education can be better understood if we consider it as being situated at the boundaries of academic and professional spheres. As supervisors and students meet outside of their own established social networks, the different forms of expertise they bring to the supervisory relationship can lead to the development of new insights in both parties, while forming new bridges between academic and professional fields. Such relationships, where there is limited overlap between networks, might be said to comprise of ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter 1973), rather than the ‘strong ties’ of relationships situated within established networks. Granovetter’s work suggests that weak ties are vital as a means of sharing ideas and creating new understandings precisely due to their tenuous and ephemeral nature. Weak ties are more likely to create bridges between groups, whereas strong ties are more likely to reinforce knowledge that already exists within groups. Again, this is suggestive of the importance of different but complementary ideas and areas of expertise. Participatory over-alignment might result in a strong tie (i.e. where supervisor and student are too closely affiliated within an immediate network) and where the potential for generating new understandings is reduced.

What lessons can be learned for those new to supervising taught postgraduate masters dissertation students online:

  1. Know your learners, talk to them and take time to understand their concerns and motivations
  2. Online postgraduate study is about relationships and discussion, this takes time and benefits from experience
  3. Remember these students often come to their studies with considerable professional expertise. Recognising this expertise is crucial to productive supervisory relationships
  4. Postgraduate students approach teaching staff as fellow professionals and expect to be treated as such in return.
  5. Most online postgraduate students continue to work while studying part-time. They do not have time for ‘busy work’ so keep guidance to the point and of direct relevance to the project.


Aitken G, Smith K, Fawns T, & Jones, D. (2020) Participatory alignment: a positive relationship between educators and students during online masters dissertation supervision. Teaching in Higher Education 0(0). Taylor & Francis: 1–15.

Gill Aitken

Gill Aitken is the Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education, Edinburgh Medical School.

Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and part-time tutor on the MSc in Digital Education. He is also the director of the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education. His main academic interests are in education, technology and memory.

Derek Jones

Dr Derek Jones is an Academic Coordinator on the MSc in Clinical Education. He is also the PhD Clinical Education (Acting) Programme Director, and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His first degree is in Sociology and he is a Health & Care Professions Council registered Occupational Therapist. Derek’s academic interests are in research methodology and pain education.

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